Emerging Contaminant Forces Water Rate Increases

Pictured Above: The reactor used in AOP treatment to remove 1,4-dioxane from drinking water at the Authority’s Commercial Boulevard pump station in Central Islip. | SCWA photo

Long Island’s only supply of drinking water comes from the ground beneath our feet, and the island’s industrial past has put this sole source aquifer in a precarious position for decades.

But as more contaminants are becoming regulated by New York State, the Suffolk County Water Authority is ramping up the methods it uses to filter the groundwater, some of which is proving to be a very costly endeavor that will soon be evident on customers’ water bills.

The contaminants that has been getting the most attention of late are perfluorinated compounds, known as PFOA/PFOS, which were commonly used in the 20th Century in non-stick cookware, furniture stain guards and firefighting foam.

The good news about PFOA/PFOS is that it can be treated with activated carbon filtration — a well-established and cost-effective method of removing contaminants from groundwater.

That’s not the case for another compound, 1,4 dioxane, which is likely to soon be regulated by New York State and could cost the Water Authority “hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Suffolk County Water Authority CEO Jeff Szabo in a recent interview with The Beacon.

“We know carbon removes PFOA and PFOS, but it does not work on 1,4 dioxane,” said Mr. Szabo. 

“1,4 dioxane was largely used as stabilizer for solvents so they don’t break down when stored,” said the Water Authority’s general counsel, Tim Hopkins. “It’s also a chemical found in variety of household products, laundry detergents, shampoos and hair care products… it gets into the aquifer from spilling of industrial solvents onto the ground. It’s also getting in through discharge of laundry operations. It may be widespread because there are a lot of different point sources.”

While the federal Environmental Protection Agency has dragged its feet on regulating groundwater contaminants, New York State in recent years has stepped up its regulatory plans. The EPA set a limit of 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, but New York State is planning to go much farther. The state Department of Health announced in December of 2018 that it plans to set maximum contaminant levels at 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, and at 1 part per billion for 1,4 dioxane.

According to the state Department of Health, “in the absence of federal leadership, the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council was enacted as part of the FY2018 Budget to identify strategies to protect the quality of New York’s drinking water.”

While the Department of Health has pledged $200 million statewide to help communities filter out these contaminants, it has capped the assistance at $3 million per water supplier. Suffolk County Water Authority representatives believe the cost of filtering 1,4 dioxane out of Long Island groundwater could be exponentially higher than for other compounds.

The Water Authority is expecting the new water quality standards to go into effect by the end of this year.

“If a compound is harmful for our customers, we want it removed,” said Mr. Szabo. “There hasn’t been an effective, proven method of treatment to remove 1,4 dioxane from groundwater. We developed an advanced oxidation system, after many years and numerous discussions with local and state health departments. On March 1, 2018, we put one system in place, in Central Islip. One well cost well over $1 million to construct and operate. We’re very optimistic. The data has shown that it removes about 97 percent of 1,4 dioxane, but we’re still studying the effectiveness of this.”

The advanced oxidation system injects hydrogen peroxide into the water, then shines ultraviolet light onto the water, breaking down the chemical bonds in the 1,4 dioxane. 

“We don’t have these systems in a warehouse ready to be deployed,” he added.

Mr. Szabo said 1,4 dioxane has been detected in 240 of the Water Authority’s 600 wells, though not all are above the proposed water quality standard, and at a cost of $1 million per well, it “could be hundreds of millions of dollars” to filter the water.

Numerous public water au-

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-thorities, including the Suffolk County Water Authority, have initiated class action litigation against the manufacturers of these chemicals, which include Dow Chemicals and many others, hoping to recoup some of the cost of the cleanup, said Mr. Hopkins, but “it could take years to litigate.”

Beginning this spring, the Water Authority plans to phase in rate increases to help cover the cost of installing and operating these new filtration systems, which ultimately could send rates up by 25 to 30 percent, said Mr. Hopkins, who added that the increases will be in a separate line on water bills for “water quality infrastructure.”

An average Water Authority customer pays about $400 per year for water, he said, adding that the increase could be as high as $100 more per year.

“If we’re successful in litigation, it could cover the cost of installing and operating these systems, but that could be years away,” he added. 

As of April 1, 2019, SCWA’s basic drinking water charge was raised from $1.95 per thousand gallons of water to $2.028 per thousand gallons. 

Mr. Szabo said the Water Authority has about 40 wells that it “would immediately seek to put treatment on,” at a cost of $50 to $70 million. In comparison, the agency’s entire capital budget for this year is $75 million.

“We want to be at the forefront of any possible threats facing our customers,” said Mr. Szabo. “We want to let everyone know what’s happening.”

In related news, the Suffolk County Water Authority also announced this spring that it is introducing a tiered rate structure to encourage water conservation by some of its heaviest users.

Customers who use more than 78,540 gallons of water per quarter would be billed for the excess usage at a rate of $2.34 per thousand gallons.

According to the Water Authority, “the average residential SCWA customer would have to more than double his or her annual use to reach the new tiered rate, based on historical customer usage figures. However, since the figures are tabulated quarterly, to avoid activating the tiered rate, customers should be careful to not water lawns wastefully during the spring and summer months.”

The Water Authority is urging customers to contact SCWA’s Customer Service staff at 631.698.9500 with any questions about the new rate system.

— Beth Young

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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